How to Travel in Style...For Free

By Nora Dunn on 11 January 2008 (Updated 5 November 2012) 13 comments

Next time you book a hotel room, how would you like to stay in the presidential suite? Or drive that sleek convertible down the coast with the sun smiling down at you?

And of course, how would you like it all for the cost of the most basic economy option? All you have to do is ask. (See also: Negotiate All Your Travel: The Ultimate Guide)

Free Car Rental Upgrades

When you are renting a car, and they ask you if you want to pay an extra $20/day for the upgraded fancier version, say no. Then turn around and ask if they have any free upgrades available. Not only will they take the request in stride, but oftentimes they'll actually produce some amazing results.

I recently reserved the smallest, cheapest car I could find. When I was at the counter, I did exactly what I outlined above. Without batting an eyelash, the woman checked to see what they have in stock, and for the same price as my cheap crappy compact car, she gave me a beautiful convertible Solara, with free gas to boot.

The secret: Car rental agencies have a certain number of free upgrades available to give to customers…who ask. They won't advertise this little secret (because everybody will ask — duh!), but trust me — it works.

Free Hotel Upgrades

The premise above for car rental upgrades also applies to hotel upgrades. All you have to do is ask if they have any free upgrades available. At worst they will snigger and say no. Oops — nothing except possibly a little blush on your cheeks to show for it. At best, you will be relaxing in your king-sized hot tub in your full suite upgrade…for free.

If you are checking in (especially later in the day), the hotel already has an idea of how many suites are booked. Larger suites are usually pre-booked in advance, so if the room is available, they may well upgrade you. It shows well for the hotel (hey, if you got a free upgrade, you'd be talking the hotel up too!), and it doesn't reflect any additional cost to them. They may say that you can't have access to the mini-bar, or that the fruit bowl won't be forthcoming, but since it's a gratis upgrade, I don't tend to complain.

First Class Airline Upgrades

Heck, it even works with airline seats. Sidle up to the boarding gate agent when the time is right (not when the flight is boarding, please!), and after simply asking, you too may be relaxing with three times the leg room of economy class…for free. I can attest to this too — I've successfully been upgraded before.

So now that you are flying, driving, and sleeping in style, may your next trip be an epic one. Ask, and you just may receive.

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Guest's picture
marylandterps

I bet this works better for hot chicks than for average people.

Guest's picture
stbnyc

We always reserve the smallest car we'd be willing to take. Most places rarely stock the smallest models, so a one-class upgrade is pretty routine. But don't go reserving the compact 2-door if you're going to NEED the room of an intermediate sedan. Make an upgrade a pleasant surprise, not a necessity.

Guest's picture
Jeff

Free car rental upgrades: definitely. Free hotel upgrades: yes. Free airline upgrades: virtually never (in 2008). Why: capacity and demand are totally in control of the carriers. If it is time for a free upgrade, it is going to their platimum or gold premium members. That's for sure.

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

wow, I will definitely ask next time.  I never knew they would just give it to you. Usually the upgrades I hear about at airlines cost some money.  They announce them before the flight and ask you to trade in your points.

Will Chen's picture

"I bet this works better for hot chicks than for average people."

We prefer the term "hot bloggers."

Guest's picture

Great tip. My husband and I got a free upgrade on our last rental!

Guest's picture
Rob O.

Anyone had specific experience with trying to upgrade to Business Class on a Delta international flight? I've been monitoring the seat availability on a flight we're taking next weekend and there are still several BC seats unreserved. I'm wondering if/how I could get a cheap upgrade at the last minute if there are still unused seats up there...

Guest's picture

Many times people forget to barter and network...find a friend of a friend who is an airline employee, or works at Disney, or for a hotel chain even. My neighbor goes to Disney World free a few times a year, gratis her aunt who works there...I have a relative who works for the airline and I regularly fly first class for a few dollars (it's no longer free for Companion passes; almost free though for immediate family). I recently flew to Germany in First Class with the sleeper beds..that was heaven!

As far as rental cars...I have to agree with what you said...they DO upgrade when you ask.

Lana Goodrich's picture

Nora, you give the best travel tips!

I find this attitude to apply to the rest of life, too: Expect the best, prepare for the worst. Although, never in a million years has a coach-class ticket to a vacation spot been anywhere close to "the worst".

I think a lot of people are uncomfortable asking for anything free. This is especially apparent if you break the world down into "birthday people" and "non-birthday people" - I'm more than happy to walk into my favorite coffee shop on my birthday, spread the news, and see what I can get out of it. Some of my friends don't agree. But this is the same attitude that lets one person get a free upgrade to first class while another is grinding their teeth next to the engines.

Guest's picture
Jon

"This is especially apparent if you break the world down into "birthday people" and "non-birthday people"

I always plan on getting free stuff for my birthday...going out to bars, out to eat etc. But to speak more specifically to the b-day reference...yeah, people like me are willing to ask, once in a while, what they can get for free. All you have to do is ask. There is a limit where too much asking will make you seem cheap, so be mindful. It also comes down to who and how you ask.

Guest's picture
Lucille

When we have taken trips we try to book through Priceline or Hotwire and negotiate an affordable price on a 4 star hotel. By looking on places like Trip Advisor you can get an idea of how receptive certain hotels are to upgrading people who buy off of the discounter websites. Sometimes they abruptly refuse sometimes they are more than happy to give you a free upgrade. One guy was able to get the pool table suite at the Palmer House in Chicago off of an $89 Priceline room reservation. It was an off weekend and his son's birthday. Last summer we stayed at the Hyatt in Chicago. We got the room for around $100 a night. I wasn't much for haggling when we checked in to try to get a suite but I did ask for a higher floor so we had a view. The desk clerk didn't even blink, we got a room with a great view.

Greg Go's picture
Greg Go

One way airlines are cutting costs due to high oil prices is cutting flights and charging more. Sadly, I think Jeff (#3 comment) is right, there will be fewer airline freebies in the near future. :(

Here's an article about the costs cutting from USA Today. http://www.usatoday.com/travel/flights/2007-11-22-jetfuel_N.htm

Guest's picture
Guest

My experience with airlines has been that if they have an upgrade (first class, direct flight, earlier flight) they offer it straight up when you check in. I've gotten all three of these upgrades without asking (this is post-9-11, but not the last year or so. I fly rarely)

Of course, you have to be checking in with the person, not at a kiosk or ahead of time.

Maybe I've just been very lucky.